Quick takes

Please Vote for Me (2007,  Chen Weijun) IMDb screened Tuesday January 22 2008 at the IFC Center Stranger Than Fiction series

Edwin Mak has embedded the entire film to be viewed on his site

yes Noyava Moskva / The New Moscow (1938, Alexander Medvedkin) IMDb

screened Friday January 25 2008 at the Walter Reade Theater Envisioning Russia series

From the director of one of the most outstanding films of 1934, Happiness (TSPDT #874) - and what a difference four years of Stalinist rule make.  There's some gentle ribbing of peasant culture as a young generation of Soviet urbanites blaze the way to the future by embracing infrastructural changes being imposed on the nation, with Moscow as the beacon example of modernity.  You'd think that Medvedkin would employ an avant garde cinematic technique to match the subject, but the best he can manage is a uneven blending of coarse country comedy, romantic musical numbers and sci-fi kitsch.  Nonetheless the film was still kept from a full release.  Incidentally, Medvedkin's life and turbulent career is the subject of Chris Marker's exceptional biography The Last Bolshevik.

mixed 

Superbad (2007, Greg Mottola) IMDb

screened Saturday January 26 2008 on DVD

Not as funny as everyone has made it out to be - so what if its unapologetically pubescent male outlook tells it like it is (as if we haven't heard this story before? I miss the innocent days of Revenger of the Nerds). It's as crudely, self-aggrandizingly in-your-face with its sleeve-worn juvenile precociousness as Juno. KNOCKED UP is so much better, managing to be both hilarious and emotionally multifacted. mixed 

Extras, extras

One of the reasons I've been absent from blogging post-marathon is that I've been spending a fair number of hours working with Cindi on editing the video extras for New Yorker's upcoming DVD of Moolaade, the last film by the great African director Ousmane Sembene. This marks the fifth DVD that I've worked on with Cindi and New Yorker (the others include Angelopoulos' Eternity and a Day, Hong Sang-soo's Woman Is the Future of Man, and Abdherramane Sissako's Waiting for Happiness). I haven't seen too much press about these extras on the web or elsewhere, though I'm glad to see an increasing number of reviewers like Dave Kehr, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Gary Tooze at DVD Beaver and others praise Cindi's efforts at raising the video transfer, audio and extras quality of New Yorker discs (long a target of derision among discerning DVD enthusiasts).

I'm glad that DVD Talk offered an enthusiastic review of a recent and underpublicized African film, Adanggaman by director Roger Gnoan M'Bala. He singled out for praise the 10 minute video I produced with Cindi and Dr. Fritz Umbach, professor of history at John Jay College in New York:

An informative 10 minute lecture by the occasionally didactic Dr. Fritz Umbach gives some illuminating background information on the historical context and imagery of the film. In fact, I'd recommend watching the documentary before the feature, as it gives away no spoilers and provides in-depth information that only augments understanding the film. There's also an excellent interview with director Roger Gnoan M'Bala contained in the insert.

Cindi points out that "didactic" as defined in Merriam Webster is "a: designed or intended to teach; b: intended to convey instruction and information as well as pleasure and entertainment" and that is certainly the case with this video. It was a pleasure working with Fritz, and I learned a lot about the cultural and economic subtexts behind the Colonial-African slave trade while editing his elucidating introduction to the film. I hope you get a chance to see our work on this disc.

Back from mi viaggio in Italia, with a report on the Pordenone Silent Film Festival

It's been exactly a week since Cindi and I returned from our ten day trip to Pordenone for the annual Giornate del Cinema Muto aka Silent Film Festival. Located an hour northeast from Venice, this is the mecca for silent film enthusiasts the world over.

While screenings were held from 9AM to midnight every day, to be honest I didn't see a lot of films, about one a day. Cindi fared better with about 2-3 per day. I was more preoccupied with finishing up my New York Film Festival reviews, working on a script, and putting in my long runs as Marathon Day creeps closer.

We both skipped the opening night screening of D.W. Griffith's Orphans of the Storm and the closing night of G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box (at 15 Euros a pop we'd figure to spend our feeble American cash elsewhere). I had already seen many of the shorts included in the Ladislas Starewitch tribute, and I guess Cindi was pretty burned out from her work on The Griffith Project 11 (1921-1924). We also missed the retro of Dutch actress Annie Bos which constituted the 60th anniversary celebration of the Nederlands FilmMuseum. It's amazing just how much silent cinema is out there to be discovered, which is why the festival is still strong after more than a quarter century.

One highlight we certainly did not miss, and was probably my favorite event of the festival, was the entertainingly erudite presentation by scholar and Oscar-winning filmmaker John Canemaker (who is also this year's recipient of the festival's Jean Mitry Award given to outstanding work in preserving silent cinema). His lecture, "The Art and Life of Winsor McCay" was a passionately delivered slideshow offering many insights on the pioneering illustrator and animator. Seeing panels from Little Nemo in Slumberland blown up to the size of a movie-screen made for an awesome spectacle. Canemaker got to channel some of McCay's vaudevillian talents when he did a live re-enactment of a Gertie the Dinosaur stage show, interacting with a screen projection of Gertie as McCay would have done during his celebrated Broadway revues.

The marquee program of the festival was "The Other Weimar," about 15 rarely-screened features from post-WWI Germany. The only one I was able to catch was Der Mädchenhirt, the first feature by proto-realist Karl Grune, about a young man's short unhappy life as a pimp. the other major program was a complete retro of the silent works of René Clair. Sadly I didn't see any of the lesser-known works, but I was treated to pristeen prints of two films I'd previously seen on less-than stellar video. Paris qui dort / The Crazy Ray is a work of madcap brilliance, seamlessly blending together surrealism and French farce through Clair's remarkable gifts for visual comedy. Un chapeau de paille d'Italie / The Italian Straw Hat suffers in the middle from its sitcom trappings, but for the most part it is an ingeniously executed mega-farce that pokes a lot of fun at bourgeois pride and the need to keep up respectable appearances at any cost. Perhaps much of this vein had already been mined successfully by Louis Feuillade in his Séraphin ou les jambes nues, which screened with Paris qui dort. Like The Italian Straw Hat, many hijinks ensue over a piece of despoiled clothing, in this case a pair of trousers - though Feuillade seems even bolder than Clair to take matters into outright bawdiness.

The Hungarian National Film Archive celebrated its 50th anniversary with a couple of screenings. A Pál -utcai fúk / The Paul Street Boys (1929, Bela Balogh) was a suprisingly affecting story of a young boy's patriotic sacrifice as part of a juvenile gang that repeatedly abuses him; the subversive subtext towards nationalism seemed years ahead of its time. Csak egy kislány van a világon / Only One Girl in the World (1930, Bela Gaal) was Hungary's first sound film, and like The Jazz Singer it earns its distinction with a generous helping of music, thanks in no small part to the debut performance of cosmopolitan actress / singer Márta Eggerth. Following the screening the festival called the home of Eggerth, now 95 years old but as spry as a teenager. The phone interview climaxed with her offering a song over the line that reverberated through the theater.

Yet another highlight was All At Sea, a recently discovered reel of 16mm footage shot by Alistair Cooke on a 1933 boat tour to the Catalina Islands with Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Godard.  Another treasure was a program of films saluting the career of Mabel Normand, who was at one time Hollywood's most celebrated comic actress before a series of scandals, substance abuse and illness ended her life at 35.  Mabel's Dramatic Career (1913) is a remarkably self-reflexive film by Normand's one-time lover Mack Sennett that makes much merriment of Normand's aw-shucks demeanor.  Head Over Heels (1922) stands in contrast as a more dramatic turn for Norman, who by this point has been made over as a romantic lead caught in a love triangle.  But the best of the lot is sadly one of her final performances, Should Men Walk Home? (1927).  Helped largely by the dynamic comic direction of Leo McCarey, Normand stars opposite Creighton Hale as two bandits who infiltrate a high class party in search of loot.  The timing of many of the gags (which include Eugene Palette and a pre-Laurel Oliver Hardy) are impeccable, making this a minor comic gem that, like its heroine, is in need of rediscovery.

The last film we caught was the 1927 silent version of Chicago, directed by Frank Urson with "supervision" by Cecil B. DeMille.  There is some contestation as to the extent of DeMille's involvement; personally I see his stamp all over this film with its effectively crafted sensationalism, atmospheric lighting, and mix of sexual titillation reigned in at the last minute by DeMille's moralistic streak.  In any event, it's much more fun than the overcooked 2002 musical version. 

Thanks to Cindi's birthday present we have immortalized our trip with many photos, which I have uploaded to Picasa.  This is actually the first online photo album I have uploaded.  Compared to the many many online albums out there (Kodak, Snapfish, Flickr, etc.) I like Picasa because it's linked to my gmail account, and it has a cool mapping function that locates your photos on a Google Map.  Check it out. Or just watch the embedded version here:

I'll just take a moment to mention a couple of highlights from Venice.  Our favorite meal of the whole trip, courtesy of La Zucca: pumpkin flan (YUM!), fennel with olives, tagliatelle with cauliflower and a half liter of Tocai.

And this shot of the Grand Canal, which to me captures the romance of the city (tourists be damned)

And last but not least, my favorite food in Italy - I tried an average of two flavors a day! (favorite was "Viennese Cream" - chocolate with candied orange pieces)

Danièle Huillet/Jean-Marie Straub: Où gît votre sourire enfoui? / Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (2001, Pedro Costa)

screened Sunday August 6 2007 at Anthology Film Archives, New York City IMDb Sadly this was the only film I caught from the Costa retrospective. Recently Cindi asked me if I had the same amount of free time I had back in '03 when I watched virtually all of the Ozu films at the Walter Reade retro, which director would I devote my attention to, and Costa immediately came to mind - I deeply admire his choice of subject matter and medium, and the necessary resourcefulness he deploys in bringing aesthetic innovation to both. Fortunately as we entered the screening room who but Pedro Costa was there in the lobby, talking to Robert Cargni, who is surely the most ubiquitous Philadelphian at New York movie houses (though Sam Adams may give him a run for his money). Cargni introduced me to Costa (much the same way that he introduced me to Ernie Gehr a few months ago). Costa struck me as a soft-spoken, self-effacing man, who seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say, under-informed as I was, having only seen one film of his. I shifted the topic to Straub-Huillet and told him that I was eager to glean insight on the couple from his films, as I've found them quite challenging, as they almost always seem to require pre-existing knowledge of the source text upon which their film is based. To that Costa rolled his eyes and said "You better not tell that to Straub, because he believes the opposite!"

All the same, my impression when watching Straub-Huillet films is that they seem to make them for themselves more than for anyone else, and having spent nearly two hours virtually with Straub and Huillet thanks to Costa's terrifically spare and direct film, my opinion hasn't wavered. Listening to them go back and forth at length about which frame upon which to cut to another shot, launching into various theories to support their respective preferences, I found the differences to be microscopic at best and unapparent to most viewers upon watching the results. Only by being privy to such discussions could I realize what values they laid into their aesthetic decisions in the course of making their films. But that only goes to support my first opinion -- that it's difficult to appreciate these films without an instruction manual. I have problems with their direction of actors, which to me feels largely artificial and emulates the limitations of Bresson's technique with few of the benefits. I think I react to Straub-Huillet the same nonplussed manner that my friends who dislike Bresson react to his films.

So credit Costa for taking spartan, dimly lit footage of their editing sessions and somehow turning it into a vivid, insightful and ultimately haunting testimony, not just to an important creative duo, but to the creative process and the community that gives it life, in this case a community of two. I got many of the same feelings and sensations from watching this film as I did from Colossal Youth. Straub fits all too easily into the emerging Costa mold of the garrulous, vaguely solipsistic character who indulges in long babbling monologues (there are a number of them in Colossal Youth as well), as the monotone set design (here, predominantly shadows) seems to reflect his psychological isolation. Straub's long-winded theorizing often verges on puffing into so much hot air, while Huillet earns more sympathy as she busies herself tirelessly winding the editing deck back and forth. But clearly the two need each other like yin and yang.

As in Colossal Youth, this world-weary isolation is given an Odyssean dignity by Costa - figures lurking in shadow darkness have a paradoxically obscure yet monumental presence. You get this sense of joining two people momentarily on their lifelong journey through aesthetic innovation, a journey in which they find themselves largely alone with each other, regardless of their reputation, and they alternately rail and resign themselves to the fact that they and they alone share the same vision, though there are several moments in the film that they too seem worlds apart in what they want to do with the most miniscule of cuts. Somehow the work holds together and holds them together. For all of its sparse, unromantic treatment of the filmmaking process, this is one of the most romantic films about filmmakers I've seen.

yes

In-depth observations by Doug Cummings, Acquarello and Daniel Kasman - who also has a great overview of the Costa retrospective

The Evil Dead (1981, Sam Raimi)

screened Monday July 30 2007 on Anchor Bay DVD in Astoria NY IMDb In preparation for watching The Evil Dead II (TSPDT #783) for my project, I watched Sam Raimi's first feature, the first installment of the Bruce Campbell /Ash Williams trilogy. Inadvertently I'd seen the last part of the trilogy first: Army of Darkness was a college favorite. Raimi was at his peak around that time; I prefer both Evil Dead films I've seen and the delirious Darkman (sort of a poor man's Batman) to his later, more mainstream efforts that I've seen: A Simple Plan (which doesn't seem to know whether to mock or outdo his buddy the Coens' Fargo) and of course the Spider-Man series (I haven't even seen the most recent one). 

Seeing the first Dead movie helps me understand why the Spider-Man series doesn't do it for me - they lack the most compelling quality of Raimi's earlier filmmaking - the visceralness.  All of Peter Parker's digitally rendered slinging and crashing and flailing about can't compare to the very tactile feel of Raimi's patented early camerawork flying at breakneck pace through creepy woods full of real trees and dirt, the pancake powder makeup glistening from the faces of demon-eyed young women, and of course Bruce Campbell's spaghetti-limbed physique.  The feeling of reality in this film resonates beyond the mimetic intentions of cinematic affect, but also opens up the viewer to appreciate the film as an act of filmmaking.

Perhaps some may deride this as calling too much attention to itself, but if we can agree that this film invokes (intentionally) a fair degree of camp, and that part of camp appeal is the knowledge of a show being put on (in which the audience's spectatorship becomes disembodied from their set position, and they regard all the parts being played on-stage, behind the stage and of course themselves in the audience), this film rewards such a viewing amply, relishing the teen horror stereotypes while simultaneously trying to ape them within its limited means.  Raimi compensates his limited means through sheer ferocity -- and, like a pubescent choir boy trying to overcome his croaks by singing even louder, the result incites a paradoxical combo of knee-jerk parodic laughter and genuine terror.  This tonal imbalance has been the bane of his directing (in Spider-man you can never take his "serious" scenes seriously because it doesn't feel like he is; as a result those moments just drag on the entire enterprise) even as it gives his films an energy that few can match. It may be the aesthetic of an amateur, but it's far more compelling than the professional doggerel he's putting out these days.

yes

Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation (1989, Eric Zala)

screened Friday July 6 2007 at Anthology Film Archives, NYC IMDb

It was a sold-out screening at AFA for this legendary video remake of Steven Spielberg's epic (TSPDT #247), made by director Eric Zala, actor Chris Strompolos and cameraman/FX wizard Jayson Lamb when they were twelve years old and finished seven years later. I think you have to be a fan of the original to appreciate just how much knowledge, meticulousness and sheer enthusiasm these three kids put into their version. And the big revelation for me (other than reaffirming what wonders can be wrought by the largely untapped potential of youth) was just how much appreciation I had for Spielberg's Raiders. I haven't seen the film in at least ten years but every single shot in this low-res Betamax remake rang clear as a bell with visual memories that were burned into my memory as surely as that crystal medallion burned into the hand of evil Nazi Toht.

The original Raiders is the second film that I saw on the TSPDT 1000, back in 1981 with my father. I saw it repeatedly on television after that and for years Indiana Jones was my favorite movie character (only to be supplanted upon adolescence by Holly Martins and T.E. Lawrence). My first directing experience was in third grade when I choreographed the opening jungle sequence with three classmates (who I recall eventually mutinied from the production once they realized that I was playing Indiana Jones). When I started taking flights to college, as I packed my luggage I would flash to the image of Indiana tossing his bullwhip and pistol on top of his open suitcase.

What's beautiful about the adaptation is how in paying tribute to all the little touches, and archetypal images and moments packed into the Spielberg version, it really raises one's esteem of the original, the intricacy of its construction and the sheer ebullience of its storytelling. Of course the film suffers in its condescending stereotypes towards Middle East culture, which, as much as the film relishes the familiarity of these cliches and playfully tweaks them, makes it a problematic film to regard in today's context. But it was just great to be reminded of a time when all that you wanted of a movie was to be entertained; on that score the film is overwhelming in its effort to do so.

Ed Halter wrote a great feature on the Raiders Adaptation for the Village Voice.

Quick thoughts following a re-viewing of The 40 Year-Old Virgin (2005, Judd Apatow)

screened June 24 2007 on DVD in Weehawken NJ IMDb

- This feels much looser than Knocked Up - a very thin and basic premise supplemented with thinly drawn sitcom characters.  It's astounding that they were able to sustain this for the better part of two hours.  How did they do it? By having inherently charismatic actors, and then having them improv, improv, improv those trite set-ups into unexpected  wit:  "we just take everything that's embarrassing and we move it out of here so it doesn't look like you live in Neverland Ranch."

- Something about the rhythm of human speech in this film that gives it the air of freshness.  The actors come off very natural (this can be even harder to do with improv scenarios than with tightly scripted scenes) which is critical since, again, they are playing cartoon types, Steve Carrell in particular.  Catherine Keener is able to add another dimension to her character just in the way she laughs.  Watching her in this made me realize how much she has in common with Barbara Stanwyck - a certain combination of intelligence and lasciviousness.

  - Cinematographically this film is more interesting than Knocked Up, at least in the electronics store where there's clever use of the TV displays.

- I had forgotten that this film also references "Everybody Loves Raymond" (Carrell watches it instead of the many porn tapes Paul Rudd bequeaths to him; in Knocked Up Paul Rudd has the memorable line about life being like an episode of "Raymond" except without the jokes) - what is it with Apatow and that show?

- Again, despite all the superficial laughs, the disposably witty pop culture humor, there is an undertone of sadness and frustration with tinges of social conservatism as a means of establishing order in a wasteland of permissability.  In both films, the fraternal order is a coping mechanism and a proving ground where regressive men-children can be as stupid and ineffectual as they want to be while offering shoddy support and advice for each other in making forays with the opposite sex and clamboring their way to mature, responsible adulthood.  (The critics who see Knocked Up as more of a male love story than a female are missing the point here -- sure the two guys are nostalgic for male fraternity, but there's no question that the film presupposes their friendship as only a temporary refuge that can never entirely conceal or replace the demands of the mature heterosexual living beckoning to them ever more insistently).  This is really what makes these Apatow films so compelling for me, how much they subtly acknowledge the pain of young adult (male) living - I concede that his take on women isn't nearly as complex, though he's made significant strides in that direction between his last two features.

San Francisco International Film Festival - Day Three

Monday April 30 2007  I took advantage of the free day of public transportation issued by Governor Schwarzenegger in the wake of Sunday's East Bay freeway collapse.  Had a brief nostalgia trip taking the 122 bus (formerly the 21A) to El Camino Real - the route has now been extended to the relatively new Bart station in South San Francisco.  Less than an hour later I was in Japantown to reunite with Cindi (who told me about how our good friend Chi-hui Yang of the San Francisco Asian American International Film Festival had come to her rescue after a gruesome but minor leg injury while getting out of a cab the previous evening).  Our intended film itinerary was to see Daratt and possibly Opera Jawa afterwards, but Gretjen Claussen mentioned that the festival guest services was offering a Vertigo tour of San Francisco locations.  Given that it was a beautiful day, and that we could see those films back in NY, we decided to do the tour. 

Designed by the Film Society's creative director Miguel Pendas, the self-guided tour takes about two and a half hours and zips through a dozen locations - some no longer existing - where scenes from Vertigo were shot.  Even though we'd been to many of these locations before, seeing them in the context of the film and hearing Miguel share his extensive knowledge of the film and its production made it a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon.  Among our company were a Korean film festival director, two Canadian shorts filmmakers and a couple of Brazilian filmmakers who had a feature in the festival, The Twelve Labors.  Someone asked if Vertigo was well known among young people in the States today, to which I answered, "for most people, film history begins with Star Wars."  Speaking of which, along the route of the tour we passed by George Lucas' production facilities in The Presidio.  It's worth taking a brief moment to compare two San Francisco filmmakers relationship to San Francisco as a shooting location.  Lucas' recent films are made in a world of complete fabrication with no shred of actual place (even the original trilogy was shot in actual locations), Hitchcock's San Francisco in Vertigo seems to occupy a strange in-between zone of real location and dreamscape.  At times it's hard to tell if the location is actually there or if it's a rear-projection:

Miguel assured us that this shot was not a rear-projection, but it may as well be!

Miguel also mentioned that only a couple of the interiors in Vertigo were shot on location - the flower shop and the museum of the Palace of the Legion of Honor where Madeleine stares at Carlotta's painting.  The rest were all shot on Hollywood soundstages. However, most of the interiors, esp. those based on actual locations, like Scottie's apartment or Ernie's restaurant where Scottie first sees Madeleine, were reproduced as faithfully as possible to the original locations - in fact Hitchcock even flew down two of the staff of Ernie's restaurants to fill their positions on the set replica.  For a director as notoriously opposed to realism as Hitchcock (to the point that he'd ridicule Rossellini and neo-realism), this strikes me as a remarkable insight into his own obsessions with reproducing lived experience.  Miguel's answer to this seeming contradiction to Hitchcock's methods: that Vertigo was Hitch's most personal film, and so those personal details could not help but be included.

San Francisco International Film Festival - Day Two

Sunday April 29 2007 After a satisfying Japanese brunch with Cindi's old friend Gretjen Clausing from the Scribe Video Center in Philadelphia, Cindi and I saw just two films before I had to go home to spend quality time with family. The two films:

Chand rooz ba'd / A Few Days Later... (2006, Niki Karimi) IMDb

Karimi was assistant to Abbas Kiarostami on The Wind Will Carry Us and is an accomplished actress and filmmaker in her own right. This, her second feature, recalls a number of Kiarostamian elements, not the least being wide shots of cars driving along winding suburban roads. One moment where two women converse inside a car had me thinking of Ten, and from there my thoughts were centered on how this film was being told from a point of view different from Kiarostami's, or rather, at the risk of sounding simplistic, a woman's point of view. With the long silences and the willful passivity of the protagonist, a graphic designer who's at a crossroads with her job, her friends and her disabled child, it reminded me most of all of Barbara Loden's Wanda. A tense, quiet film that seems as seems to consider its audience as but another potential intrusion into the space it seeks to carve for its beleaguered heroine. Fu zi / After This Our Exile (2006, Patrick Tam)

Winner of five Hong Kong Film Awards including Best Picture, Director and Actor, this is the first film in 17 years directed by Tam, who has made his living since by editing the films of Wong Kar-Wai, Johnnie To and others. It was a grueling film to watch, with pop superstar Aaron Kwok testing the limits of his charisma by playing the worst kind of father imaginable, mentally abusing his 10 year old son into becoming a pickpocket. There are some brilliant setpieces involving the father's harebrained schemes to make money (he even pimps out his girlfriend!) and it's shot beautifully as usual by Mark Lee Pin Bing. It takes a while to get started -- the first third of the film, involving the mother's protracted abandonment of her family, could be whittled down in order to get to the real heart of the story between father and son. Also there are two hot and heavy sex scenes involving Kwok, first with Charlie Yeung and then Kelly Lin - that seem to belong to another film. I discovered afterwards that I had watched a directors cut of the film that's longer than the version that was released in Hong Kong. This blog has an informed comparison of the two versions. Here in SF a couple of news items have taken front and center. First, the astounding truck explosion that destroyed part of the MacArthur Maze in the East Bay, potentially causing a massive traffic nightmare for weeks to come.

The second item being the Warriors' stunning upset-in-progress of the Dallas Mavericks, the top team in the NBA. It's been 13 years since the Warriors were in the playoffs, and they've got the Bay Area pumped with their scrappy, high energy underdog play. It's been a long time since they had a player with as much charisma and guts as Baron Davis (left).

For some reason my mom decided to have a guest come over for my first night back home, so my bro and I went to a nearby bowling alley to check out the game since we don't have cable at home. At the bowling alley bar, surrounded by Chinese and Filipinos sporting wrist braces on their bowling hands, we cheered the Warriors on to a last minute victory and a commanding 3-1 lead of the series. Outside of Houston, Golden State must have the highest population of Asian fans in the NBA.

San Francisco International Film Festival - Day One

Saturday April 28 2007 Within an hour of arriving to SFO we were at a brunch held at the gorgeous restaurant Foreign Cinema (where films are projected on an enormous wall in the patio).  There I got to meet none other than film historian, preservationist and director Kevin Brownlow (pictured below in the center).

It was a pleasure to personally thank Mr. Brownlow for introducing me to the genius of Charlie Chaplin some 20 plus years ago, when as a child I watched his documentary Unknown Chaplin on PBS.

Cindi and I checked in with Cindi's old mentor from her days at the Philadelphia Film Fest, Linda Blackaby (second from the right) who now programs the SFIFF.  From the brunch we hitched a ride with Gary Meyer (third from the right) who runs the Balboa Theater in SF and is heavily involved in SF film culture.  Boy did he have a lot of stories to tell, notably about the late great Mel Novikoff (who saved the Castro Theatre, the single greatest movie palace in San Francisco) as well as the gentleman on the far right of the photo, Maurice Kanbar (after whom the NYU film school is named), inventor of the lint brush, the cineplex, and SKYY vodka.  We also had lunch with Helena Foster (far left) a wonderful person who added to our appreciation of San Francisco film history.

At the Castro we heard Mr. Brownlow share plenty of stories about growing up as a film enthusiast (he got his first projector at the age of ten)  and as a young adult hunting around Hollywood to interview the living legends of the silver screen.  That was followed by a screening of a film Mr. Brownlow recently restored, Alan Dwan's The Iron Mask (1929), Douglas Fairbanks' last film before excusing himself from the sound era.  It's a rousing swashbuckler with the Four Musketeers raising their sabers with as much flourish as the members of Spinal Tap strumming their guitars.

Following the screening we met up with Jonathan Marlow and Hannah Eaves of GreenCine, who showed us the ropes of getting our accreditation.  After a quick dinner my brother joined us and we attended a screening/presentation by local filmmaker Rob Nilsson, which was part screening, part manifesto and part communal lovefest.  It seemed that the majority of screening attendees had either acted or worked on one of Nilsson's productions (many of which are still in progress) and he regularly called out members of the audience to be recognized for their contributions.  He made a great turn of phrase in referring to himself as a "dependent" filmmaker: "“There is so much nonsense about independence, but I am so dependent on friends, collaborators—all the people in this room.... I owe money to a lot of you. Are you here to collect?"

Killer of Sheep (1977, Charles Burnett)

third viewing (first time in theater) screened at the IFC Center, New York NY IMDb YES YES YES YES - seeing it in the theater gave me shivers. To my mind, the best film ever made about what it feels like to be poor -- it even has Pasolini and Bunuel beat on that score with its unflinching look at living in a state of everyday horror. J. Hoberman calls this and Eraserhead the two greatest American independent films of the 70s, and I think the two films have a lot more in common than one would assume. Burnett's film is as weird, surreal and alienated as anything Lynch has done, with as vivid a cast of bizarro characters -- the one key thing that opposes him from Lynch is his basing his characters on real life people instead of distended genre types. This is the best film ever made to capture the spirit of blues music on celluloid -- the muddiness, the sorrow, the energy, the blindsingly simple genius of the blues. One of the greatest American films ever made, and therefore one of the greatest films period. #1 for 1977

Avaliha / First Graders (1984, Abbas Kiarostami)

Screened Sunday May 11 2007 at the Museum of Modern Art, NY NY IMDb

Even though FIRST GRADERS is clearly the other Kiarostami film with subject matter closest to HOMEWORK, I was struck at the structural similarities between HOMEWORK and ABC AFRICA. Both start with a reflexive intro that establishes the director’s mission; both contain the director’s visual/verbal presence and occasional direct commentary; both accept and present evidence that might not perfectly illustrate the “inscribed” sociopolitical thesis; and both end with the film’s most aestheticized sequence, shifting the stylistic terms of the piece. By contrast, FIRST GRADERS dips from time to time into a “fictional” shot breakdown instead of a “documentary” shot breakdown; and the fictional elements don’t really shift the terms of the piece - it’s more as if they brush us back a bit, like a pitcher throwing an inside fastball to keep us from getting too comfortable.

- From Dan Sallitt's comments on my Homework entry

I suppose I agree with Dan -- while First Graders depicts the same milieu of Iranian schoolchildren as Homework, the structure of its narrative and sociological inquiry is very different.  At first it feels like the kind of fly-on-the-wall Frederick Wiseman documentary that was critiqued in the Paul Matthews essay I cited in my Homework write-up.  But about a third of the way through Kiarostami makes his artifice more flagrant by staging dramatic sequences where the kids are obviously no longer being caught in an unscripted moment, but are doing things (walking down hallways, interacting with peers) that are obviously staged.  It feels like a warm-up to the blunt epistemological analysis of documentary filmmaking, couched in a much warmer tone that aspires to poetic dreamlike moments towards the end.  I'm not sure if I agree with Dan that the film doesn't reinvent itself as much as Homework does in its final moment -- the shifts in the reality fabric of First Graders happen more gradually and less abruptly.  It's a more free-flowing work, which doesn't give it the same intensity as Homework (and unfortunately this plays against the one prejudice I harbor against Kiarostami, that I'm inclined to see his looser moments as a demonstrable lack of disciplined filmmaking -- it's just that I've seen him when he is focused and to me it's simply much more compelling.  Or maybe I'm just looking for one little thing to hold against an artist for whom otherwise I have the highest esteem imaginable).

yes (#9 for 1983 between Homecoming and Nostalghia)

I never thought I'd live to see the day...

that I'd walk out of an Abbas Kiarostami movie. But there it was... Kiarostami shorts program

screened Sunday, March

Dandan Dard / Toothache (1983) IMDb

yes - this one has a great narrative flow for the first half - comically attributing a boy's poor dental hygiene to generations of neglect using archival footage.  The second half doesn't live up as well, but it's great to see a new shade of Kiarostamian humor. Be Tartib ya Bedoun-e Tartib / Regulary or Irregularly (1981) IMDb yes - Five different scenarios (school recess, the queue for the water fountain, bus boarding, cars entering a tunnel, and an intersection) are shown in orderly and disorderly mode.  This is reportedly one of Jonathan Rosenbaum's two or three favorite Kiarostami films.  It has a great Tati-esque quality to it (which may be why Rosenbaum loves it) in its master shot approach to depicting the comical dysfunctions of mass human behavior.  I think it works mostly as a concept - it just didn't take off into another level for me. Hamsarayan / The Chorus (1982) IMDb

YES - Now here's what I like -- exploring the conceptual/technical properities of cinema in a way that is integral to the story being told.  An old man who's hard of hearing decides to remove his hearing aid when there's too much noise outside his apartment -- but this prevents him from hearing his grandkids when they call out for him to let them in.  Kiarostami does a great job setting up the old man as a sympathetic victim before reversing the roles by inserting characters more helpless than him.  It's a sweet little movie with a subtly underlaid metaphysical dimension, shot uncharacteristically in soft focus. Hamshahri / Fellow Citizen (1983) IMDb as Mike D'Angelo would say, W/O - abrasively noisy documentary about a traffic officer trying to turn motorists away from a congested area.  It just didn't go anywhere, basically the same haggling for close to an hour.  Perhaps if you understand Farsi you can get more of the nuances to each interaction...

Mossafer / The Traveller (1974, Abbas Kiarostami)

screened Friday, March 2 2007 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York NY IMDb The Abbas Kiarostami retrospective opened last Thursday with a hot ticket screening of Taste of Cherry (TSPDT #477) with The Big 'Bas appearing in person. My gf asked me if I wanted to go. Now Kiarostami has had more impact on me as a film lover and aspiring filmmaker than just about anyone working today. Why wouldn't I want to see him in the flesh? Well for one thing I've seen Taste of Cherry three times already, twice on video, and one memorable screening at the Thalia with my old college friends. I remember that screening fondly because of how everyone in the theater stood around after the lights went up, dazed and stunned by the ending. And just like that a group of strangers started talking excitedly trying to make sense of what they'd just seen.

. I've also seen Kiarostami in the flesh, back when he received a special award back in 2000 from the San Francisco Film Festival. He appeared on stage right after a screening of The Wind Will Carry Us (TSPDT #660), my first ever Kiarostami screening. During the brief Q&A session a man a few rows behind me yelled out a rather imposing question, "Are you a Muslim or a transcendentalist?" Kiarostami's reply was "What you see in my film is what I believe," which elicited rousing applause from everyone (including the man, who shouted back "Good answer!"). That answer has stuck with me because I think Kiarostami is one of the few filmmakers who offer such a banal as well as politically correct non-answer account for their work and make it meaningful. When I watch his films, I really do feel this uncommon degree of awareness that cinema is a dialogue facilitated between its creator and its audience, that meaning, emotion, all those things we want out of a movie are things that we bring into the film as much as we take from it. With his best films, you don't just watch a great movie, but you come out of it with a heightened sense of awareness of how the world feels to us, how people talk to each other. You take less for granted.

. And maybe this is why I declined the possibility of seeing Kiarostami again, and why I'm probably not going to catch all the films I haven't seen yet despite the ultra-rare opportunity to do so. I can take it as a good sign that I've learned from the master, that instead of chasing after every little thing I could do to occupy myself throughout my life, why not focus on what's right in front of me and see it for all it has to offer?

As for The Traveller, I'm not sure if it's a masterpiece (I think lately I've grown more sensitive and dubious to the procedural qualities of his narratives), but there are moments that are clearly masterful. It's interesting to see him cut as much as he does during a briskly edited soccer match that opens the film -- quite a departure from anything you see in his "mature" period. And there's an indoor sequence where Kiarostami uses Hitchcockian POV shots to get into his character's head (it made me realize how he carried this technique into films like Taste of Cherry and Through the Olive Trees to a more whimsical and contemplative effect that is nothing like Hitchcock).

. The film has a remarkably non-judgmental view of its protagonist, a young delinquent boy who cares much more about soccer than school, and devises ways to earn a fast buck to buy himself a bus trip to a national soccer match in Tehran. Even though he steals from his family and rips off kids by pretending to take their picture with a broken camera, Kiarostami neither makes us feel scorn or pity for this no-future kid; we take in his schemes and their outcomes as facts first. This approach makes the ending remarkably stirring, because its image of utter loss, desolation and abandonment takes it beyond the realm of social realism and towards something more existential that no prescriptions or programs can fully address.

. Also playing with The Traveller were two shorts, the delightful So Can I (which would fit perfectly within an episode of Sesame Street) and Two Solutions For One Problem (thanks for the link to the video, Girish), which had me slapping my forehead with its brilliant simplicity.

La Ceremonie (1995, Claude Chabrol)

screened Tuesday February 27 2007 on HVE DVD IMDb Bonnaire meets Huppert - what more is there to say? More unnerving than THELMA AND LOUISE, probably more disciplined in craft than HEAVENLY CREATURES. Not sure what to make of the ending though...

YES/yes (#10 for 1995 between A PERSONAL JOURNEY WITH MARTIN SCORSESE THROUGH AMERICAN MOVIES and SHOWGIRLS)

A nos amours (1983, Maurice Pialat)

screened Monday February 19 2007 on Criterion DVD in Brooklyn NY IMDb

Maurice Pialat, you are a virus that infects your cast and crew, your films, your viewers.

Well, anything goes all of the time Everything you dream of Is right in front of you And everything is a lie

Look me in the eye And tell me that I'm satisfed Look me in the eye Unsatisfied I'm so, I'm so unsatisfied I'm so dissatisfied I'm so, I'm so unsatisfied I'm so unsatisfied Well, I'm-a I'm so, I'm so unsatisfied I'm so dissatis,dissattis... I'm so

The Replacements

Random thoughts:

- I think the extras DVD on this film is possibly the best Pialat primer in existence and one of the valuable set of extras to be found in any Criterion package. A feature doc on the film and its reputation, a moving interview with Sandrine Bonnaire, two admiring interviews on Pialat with Catherine Breillat and Jean-Paul Gorin, and best of all, audition footage that gives you a taste of what a volcano of salt and vinegar Pialat must have been like on the set.

- The film itself - not quite as great as Van Gogh in my opinion, perhaps because I didn't watch it as closely... but something about the domestic scenes struck me as a bit off, or not as layered as his best work.

- The much feted dinner scene -- more interesting to read or hear about than to watch -- it felt like the climax of dinner mystery theatre to me. Sorry, but I have to call it as I see it. - But that dimple scene -- Priceless. Quintessential Pialat -- fast on its feet, brilliance here and gone in a flash. And much more nuanced and alive than Robert DeNiro's disgusting riff in Cape Fear.

- Bonnaire's acting debut - YES. Pialat lucked out big time.

- Pialat's acting debut - YES. Pialat lucked out big time.

- this won the Cesar for Best Picture the same year that Terms of Endearment won the Oscar. Talk about a study in cultural contrasts...

- Rock on, Nick Pinkerton - go ahead and touch that live wire! - And please people, no more comparisons to Cassavetes - the man deserves his own space to be understood, DAMMIT!

yes (#6 for 1983 between TRADING PLACES :shrug: and PAULINE AT THE BEACH)

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957, Jack Arnold)

screened Monday, February 19 2007 on VHS in Brooklyn NY IMDbThis film is a study in phases of cinematic storytelling, reflecting different stages of a man's progressive stages of physical degeneration and spirtual evolution. Once it gets past the talkative, expository setup, there's some rather compelling dramatic scenes where a surprisingly emotive Grant Williams plays out an impressive range of male frustration over his shrinkage. As his character becomes so small that he literally falls out of the view of his wife and friends, the male melodrama gives way to a more purely cinematic and action-packed storytelling mode, only intermittently intruded upon by his voice-over; human ego fulfillment gives way to sheer survivalism, battling against a cat and a spider. But even after those challenges have been surmounted, they are proven to be Pyrrhic victories... and then the film elides into an ending of unexpected transcendental splendor [spoilers]: [youtube]oH88FM4WaUQ[/youtube]

I was continuing to shrink, to become... what? The infinitesimal? What was I? Still a human being? Or was I the man of the future? If there were other bursts of radiation, other clouds drifting across seas and continents, would other beings follow me into this vast new world? So close - the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet - like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up, as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. The universe, worlds beyond number, God's silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment, I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man's own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature. That existence begins and ends in man's conception, not nature's. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!

YES (#7 for 1957 between A KING IN NEW YORK and WHAT'S OPERA, DOC?)

Avanti! (1972, Billy Wilder) [though this is really about Nelly Furtado's "Promiscuous"]

screened Tuesday February 13 2007 on DVD in Brooklyn NY IMDb

Chicago Reader capsule by Jonathan Rosenbaum

This 1972 release is the most underrated of all Billy Wilder comedies and arguably the one that comes closest to the sweet mastery and lilting grace of his mentor, Ernst Lubitsch. Jack Lemmon arrives at a small resort in Italy to claim the body of his late father, who's perished in a car accident; there he meets Juliet Mills, whose mother has died in the same accident and, as it turns out, had been having an affair with the father. The development of Mills and Lemmon's own romance over various bureaucratic complications is gradual and leisurely paced; at 144 minutes, this is an experience to roll around on your tongue.

Would I if I had the presence of mind, Jonathan. I can see this movie working for someone who is in that Lubitsch state of mind. It plays very breezy and seems like a bagatelle, but there's much going on under the surface, and sweet but insecurely voluptuous Juliet Mills is a treat. And it has some trenchant jokes made at the expense of US foreign policy -- seems that every other movie I watch these days, both old and new, has something to say about this, or maybe I'm more sensitive to such matters lately.

I could see myself enjoying this movie a lot more some other time. These days my mind is on a different wavelength -- more into movement, dynamism, not the lilting stuff. I guess this is why Miami Vice appeals to me more, even as a romantic film. And this past week, listening through my mp3s of the Village Voice Poll's Top Singles of Last Year , I found a musical corollary: Nelly Furtado's "Promiscuous", produced by the ever-amazing Timbaland (this guy's bleep-and-blip brand of hip hop was brilliant 6 years ago, but now that we're living in the age of hip hop ringtones, his music truly is the soundtrack of people's lives).

This song starts off as fairly standard night club cross-talking between boy and girl, and it does evoke that feeling of two people checking each other out, mixing together flirtation, anticipation and rather cruel, non-plussed meat market objectification from both sides ("Roses are red, some diamonds are blue / Chivalry is dead but you're still kinda cute"). But then the chorus comes and there's something about it that floors me. Neither Timbaland or Furtado are particularly gifted vocalists but there's something about how both of them strain their chords in the chorus that is oddly touching, as if we were listening to mediocre people finding each other in a nightclub and just giving away to their needs in a moment, letting go and aspiring to that feeling of sexual elevation.

And then it goes back into the no-nonsense meat market beat -- this is the kind of stuff that that Senses of Cinema article about Miami Vice was talking about -- how being cool and being locked into "the flux" of life leaves you feeling hollow until it gives way to the need to strive beyond just being on top of everything. That's what the middle part of Miami Vice is about, that's what the chorus of this song is about, and I guess this is what's on my mind lately -- not just keeping up, but breaking through.

Greed cannot be made greedless

not by the wealth of all the world.

Though we accomplish a million mental feats

none go with us when we are gone.

How then to be true?

How to break through the screen of lies?

- Guru Nanak, Japji Sahib

The Japji, which I'm reading as research for one of my filmmaking projects, refers to the world as a constantly teaming ocean of illusion. It's an image that resonates with some in Miami Vice -- how boats move through these flat screens of water rendered in translucent HD -- I love how HD brings out the image-ness of such imagery -- that these are all screens we pass through. This our present condition.

In it's own way Avanti! is about rupturing the status quo, facilitated through love as well as through time -- time spent in a place, adjusting to its rhythms and being changed through it. Which makes it all the weirder to report that I wasn't changed or even connecting to it on an emotional level -- even though I could see through the screen, I couldn't break through it. Well you can't have 'em all. [Not sure if this explains why I wasn't as focused on Avanti! but maybe this TSPDT project has made me focus so much on the films within the project that I just don't have much to give to "leisure" viewings. This year has witnessed a dramatic downturn for me in movie watching. In January, I watched 18 films, down from my 2006 monthly range of 25-30. And halfway through February, I've seen all of five movies. So I've gone from averaging 5 films a week to 1. No doubt a byproduct of this blog.]

The Mouse that Roared (1959, Jack Arnold)

screened Monday, January 29 2007 on VHS in Brooklyn NY IMDb

YES for opening title

yes for overall humor and snarkiness

yes for teasing resonance and relevance to contemporary US foreign policy

mixed for Peter Sellers' hamming (guess I'm not a fan)

yes for Jean Seberg's midwestern accent overall rating of yes

Wanda (1971, Barbara Loden)

screened Sunday, January 28 2007 on DVD in Brooklyn NY IMDb

My pal salmau suggested that I just watch a movie without writing anything about it, and I am taking this opportunity to do so. But I will say that this movie, though a bit rough-going at parts, gets under your skin and stays with you. One thought I had -- Bonnie and Clyde was one of my favorite films as a kid; would I consider it rather juvenile today, esp. compared to a film like this, that has a more three-dimensional sense of space, place and character?

yes/YES (#6 for 1971 between Pakeezah and Walkabout)

Some key reviews and essays online:

Berenice Reynaud for Senses of Cinema - gives a heartfelt account of the film within the contexts of Loden's life and feminist cinema.

From review by Tom Sutpen for Flickhead:

there really hadn’t been an American film centered around the character of a working class female since Joan Crawford waited tables with extravagant sincerity in Mildred Pierce—and even then one could hardly call the depiction clinical. It was a social archetype that Hollywood (and most independent cinema, if the truth be told) had never proven terribly eager to pursue. Yet throughout Wanda, Barbara Loden managed to strike, and sustain, a phenomenal note of verisimilitude. Hers is not a performance of great nuance, but it also never strays into the realm of sloven proletarian caricature. She is, all in all, a woman left spiritually and psychically numb by the totality of her existence (smacked in the face at one point, it takes her a full minute before she can work up a slightly irritated “Hey, that hurt”). She doesn’t drift through life, life drifts through her; as if the dearest survival could only be found in the deepest passivity.

Jeremy Heilman at Movie Martyr:

Watching as Wanda drifts from one coal town to another, attaching herself to whoever will have her, it might be tempting to read her shirking of the roles of mother and wife as a feminist move. Loden is careful to never suggest anything so deliberate on Wanda’s part, though. Although she might appear to be a free woman, she is best described as meek and clearly still has emotional dependencies that bind her to others.

This tendency is made apparent in the second half of the film, in which Wanda all but forces herself onto Mr. Dennis, a petty criminal who, under his gruff exterior, turns out to have complimentary needs. From this point, Wanda turns out to be one of the more perceptive studies of co-dependence that I’ve seen.

Erasing Clouds:

The sheer cohesion obtained by the editing rhythm, which is slow but tight, keeps this film on track. Some scenes are dragged into embarrassment, shared with the main character, but suddenly sharp, abrupt, cinema vérité-style cutting releases the tension that is soon regained. A strangle-release cinematic approach.

A great collection of screen captures from the film can be found here.